Natural Light Versus Off-Camera Flash: Two Photographers Battle It Out

Natural light photography has swelled in popularity as sensors improve, but the persistent battle between off-camera flashes or strobes, and just using available light continues. This video shows Manny Ortiz going head-to-head with Jessica Kobeissi to highlight the differences.

I find it difficult to stand resolute in either camp here; I'd rather be (to quote Tim Minchin) in defense or the fence. Both lighting styles have their own place and offer different results which — for me — are intended for different purposes. Natural light portraiture is usually true to the first half of its name: natural. The shadows are often much softer and the images are closer to scenes you would see with the eye. Off-camera flash photographer, however, offers a glossy commercial feel that you're more used to seeing in print.

It's worth noting that Kobeissi and Ortiz really leaned in to their respective styles here. That is, much harsher shadows could have been achieved with just the natural light, and the off-camera flash could have been used more as a fill light than a key light, but it's a brilliant reference tool for the different styles. As the shoot was framed as a head-to-head, I'd have to give it to Ortiz here, but it's not cut and dry. Kobeissi's natural light images had a fashion editorial feel, partially due to her excellent model direction, whereas Ortiz's images were a little more engaging for me. They were also technically superb with a great balance of ambient and strobe lighting to achieve that high contrast result.

Which style did you prefer?

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24 Comments

Francisco Hernandez's picture

I preferred Manny's shots but both photographers did great. I feel like the OCF in this session had more pop. Jessica's shots could have had that effect as well had she utilized a reflector or diffuser by the strong sunlight coming through the window.

James Kent's picture

I’d like to see this and have each photographer pick their favorite shots and then have both edit their own and the others shots.
In general I’d like to to see 2-3 people edit one photograph and see where they each take it.

Michael Coen's picture

I'm with you, Robert, I think it all comes down to preference of style and what it is you're trying to achieve. When it comes to portraits, I prefer studio lighting because I tend to favor low-key portraits. I think headshots look much better with a mix of the two. Thanks for posting.

Arber Elezi's picture

Both are Great, But with Flash, Stunning!

Johnny Rico's picture

"Natural Light" photographers that don't use any reflectors, butterfly/scrims, white cards, black cards, etc....

Chris K.'s picture

It varies on the project/look your shooting for. I may prefer strobes. But it also isn’t that tough to light your subject/scene with a very natural “look”

As photographers shouldn't we be using whatever lighting allows us to get the shot we want to get or are hired to get? It is not one versus the other. A good photographer should be able to shoot both natural and flash equally a good as the other. So no matter what circumstance you are thrown into you can get the shot you or your client wants.

Yes, that is called "available light" photographer. What ever (is the best) light is available...

I preferred Off-Camera Flash. Because Manny's shoot was great.

Antti Mutka's picture

A lot more could have been done in that space with that great light pouring in.

Sergio Tello's picture

I feel it gets lost in the "I'll fix it in post" mentality.

Antti Mutka's picture

Well that and shooting things that feel safe. But then again it is different when you're making a quick video vs shooting for a few hours with a model.

Lee Christiansen's picture

The whole natural vs flash is a daft argument.

Flash can look like natural, natural can look like flash - it depends on the nature of the source.

I've shot images with artificial light that are indistinguishable from natural light, and it is perfectly possible to have it the other way around.

If matural light is in the right place, and doing exactly what we want it to, then we can leave our strobes in the bag. If natural light needs a little help with reflection or masking then we can break out the reflectors and flags. If natural isn't where or what we want then we can break out the strobes and create a natural or stylised image.

I'd love to know what "natural light" photographers do when the sun is in the wrong place for a particular required shot. Putting the sun over to the side isn't an option when you need the building or the sun to be on the other side...

We light things to create an image. If the sun is up their and doing a great job then I don't need anything else. But if it is not behaving for me, then I'll do it myself.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Jessica's shots look like snapshots. There are waaayy better natural light photographers out there that even could put Manny to shame.

Johnny Rico's picture

They are snapshots. Natural light photographers that don't seek out and utilize good light, or modify the light to suit their needs/wants are just lazy, and use the term "natural light photographer" as a cop out.

Sean Kimbel's picture

I know commenters are trying to be politically correct in these comments, and I appreciate that. But, I agree with you Johnny. As a general rule, "natural light" photographers take that moniker because they don't know any better or are perhaps too lazy. However, it is possible to get amazing images with natural light. But, not everywhere, in every situation, at every time. The only way to get amazing images all the time is with OCF (and a photographer who knows how to use it). In this challenge, it wasn't even a close game. Manny wiped the floor with Jessica's shots.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I don't want to compare his work to hers as they look completely different and they both took a very different approach. What I am complaining about are her really bad looking shots.

Sean Archer shoots natural light. He kills it with his work.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. Her work just plain sucks. I could post links to a dozen photographers that I follow on 500px who shoot with only natural light that blow her cellphone shots away lol.

Armando Morales's picture

nice video, personally when I use natural light to shoot people I look to obtain some contrast, she seem to prefer very even light

Tom Weis's picture

Musings:

Manny shot with longer focal lengths. Jessica shot wide to very wide. In this case I prefer the telephoto look.
Manny - better use of color in my opinion
Jessica could have used reflectors and diffusion to mix it up a bit.
I like Manny's angles better.

Just my 2 cents.

John Skinner's picture

Without fill = Portfolio images suitable for B & W conversion and bluntly... plain.
WITH fill = Editorial and more flexible images.

And lets be honest here... The subject matter is EVERYTHING. Pretty hard to get crap shots with very attractive people in their 20's. So leg up right out of the gate.

Bottom line is that you should know how to do both if you are a pro- there are times you HAVE to create images and all that is available to you (traveling/on a location where you could not bring equipment) is 'natural' light- and there are times when you HAVE to create images at a certain time and place and the only way you could possibly produce quality is by creating your own light (weather/location/existing lighting is often not cooperative).

Obviously knowing how to use flash gives you a chance to create more artificial/dramatic looks as well which would not be possible in any 'natural' light.

amanda daniels's picture

I always like Jessica's work and she has admitted many times that she isn't great with flash but plans to learn more this year. I also love Manny's work as well. In this particular video I found it very interesting to see the differences in technique and outcome. Manny admitted that working with flash can be limited because he can't move the model around as much as he would like to. I personally preferred Manny's final images which surprised me because I tend to prefer natural light work. They both have completely different styles in shooting and what they like which I think made this video even more interesting. I think saying that natural light photographers are lazy is a bit of a stretch. There are lots of photographers who know how to use flash but prefer not to. It is all about personal style and personal choice. using flash or not doesn't make you a better photographer by any means. And again, Jessica has admitted several times that she needs practice with flash, so she doesn't pretend to be something she isn't. They are both talented photographers with different styles and that was the point of these shoot.

Ryan Gallagher's picture

I feel like when shooting with the natural light she really didn't use the light pouring in the windows to illuminate the models' features and create dramatic contrast in the images. Many of the images had the model with the light to their back, or they were standing in shady corner areas. This gave a sort of natural fill light, but it was seldom utilized as a primary light source.

To me the comparison of the two sets of image was not an "even" comparison. I would have found it more valuable to see what the images looked like if the light from the windows was used more in a similar way the off camera flash was used as the primary light source for the photos.